Following the Presidential Race (for Middle School Students)

When I started my morning the way I often do, by reading the front page of the Washington Post’s website, I noticed two things that I’d like to bring to the attention of middle school students:

First, I’m betting most middle school students have no idea who Gingrich is (they should find out). And second, I’m betting they don’t much care about politics.

But as emerging citizens, they are at an age when they should start to care. In November 2012, the United States will hold a presidential election, as it does every four years. In that election, Newt Gingrich, or Mitt Romney (or Rick Perry, or Ron Paul) will try to unseat President Obama to see who will lead the country for the next four years.

These names may seem far-away and unimportant, but stick with me for a moment here…

As Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces, the president has the power to decide about whether to send US troops to places like Iraq (circled above).

Because US troops were sent to Iraq in 2003, my brother-in-law, a doctor in the Army, has already served two tours of duty on bases in Iraq. Those tours — each about six months long — took him away from his wife and two young sons.

My brother-in-law thankfully was not injured while serving in Iraq and is home safe. However, since these wars began nearly a decade ago, over 4,400 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and over 1,800 have been killed in Afghanistan.

In addition, over 30,000 US troops have been wounded, and a conservative estimate is that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.

Here’s a paragraph from the front-page article in today’s Washington Post about the legacy of civilian deaths in Iraq:

Exactly how many Iraqis were killed by Americans may never be known. An analysis last year by King’s College London of 92,614 civilian deaths reported from 2003 through March 2008 by Iraq Body Count — a Web site that monitors civilian casualties — found that 12 percent were caused by coalition forces. Though there is no reliable figure for total civilian casualties throughout the nearly nine-year-long war, most estimates put the overall number of deaths at more than 100,000. According to the Defense Department, 4,474 American service members have died, 3,518 of whom were killed in action.

Now it may be that history will ultimately view the effort in Iraq as worth the effort, especially if stability and freedom ultimately prevail in that region. According to President Bush, the purpose of the invasion was “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s alleged support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.”

Whatever your politics may be, it’s undeniable that the US president plays a huge role in deciding when and where to deploy US military might, and those decisions have huge implications. The president also makes other big decisions that influence the country and the world. Choosing the president is a big deal.

The purpose of this post is to challenge middle school students to start paying attention to the 2012 presidential election now.

The election is 11 months away, but the Republicans have been busy for several months choosing their candidate to oppose President Obama. More Republican candidates had been interested in running for president (see my blog entry from August, Electing a President, for a time-capsule look at the process), but several have dropped out of the race.

Students will probably have heard about one such candidate — Herman Cain. Mr. Cain is a businessman who was polling well, but who has suspended his campaign because of sexual harassment allegations made against him by a number of women from his past.

The remaining six candidates — pictured below from the debate last night — are vying for the Republican Nomination…

From left to right the candidates are…

Well, wait a moment. Why not make this more active? Don’t tell students up front who the candidates are — have them do some research so that they can learn who is trying to win the Republican nomination for President. Students should be active citizens, and the information is out there…

Instead, let’s analyze what happened last night in Iowa:

The candidates are named above, and the moderators of the debate were George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer, two political reporters for ABC (click their names to get basic Wikipedia background about each of them).

But why are these folks meeting in Iowa, of all places?

Well, Iowa has scheduled the first-in-the-nation caucus on Jan 3, when registered Republican voters in Iowa will choose the candidate they want to represent them in the 2012 election.

Whichever candidate wins Iowa will win 28 delegates and will gain momentum as the media attentions shifts to New Hampshire, the second state that will choose delegates a week after Iowa has its caucus.

Here’s a chart I just found from an article about the process from the Christian Science Monitor:

To win the nomination, a candidate needs about 1200 delegates. Ten states will hold caucuses or primaries on Tuesday, March 6. According to that same article from the Christian Science Monitor, 526 delegates will be up for grabs on that Tuesday – almost half what a candidate needs to win the nomination.

If students do get into following the campaign, there are plenty of online resources they can consult. For example, a transcript of last night’s debate is not hard to find.

The Republicans and Democrats will each present their candidates for president at the conventions they hold at the end of the summer. Here are the dates:

  • August 27–30, 2012: Republican National Convention to be held in Tampa, Florida
  • September 3–6, 2012: Democratic National Convention to be held in Charlotte, North Carolina

As the incumbent (fancy word for current office holder), President Obama has the advantage of not having to worry about winning the Democratic nomination because no Democrat seems to be challenging him. He can focus on fundraising.

By contrast, the Republicans have to fight verbally with each other as they did at the debate last night. They also have to compete for Republican funding.

Then again, President Obama is presiding over a struggling economy, and history suggests that unless the economy improves, voters will vote for a change, which means picking a Republican president.

Here’s an excerpt from an article from the New York Times in 1991:

Scholars who have studied the effects of the economy on Presidential elections have found that incumbents have serious trouble weathering election-year recessions but that voters are forgiving of recessions that occurred earlier in a President’s term.

Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University here, wrote in his book, “The 13 Keys to the Presidency,” that all seven times since the Civil War when the economy was in recession in the fall of a Presidential election year, someone from the opposition party was elected President. The years he listed were 1876, 1884, 1896, 1920, 1932, 1960 and 1980.

Ironically, that article, titled Recession and Re-election Don’t Mix, began by noting that “the only obstacle in the way of [President George H.W. Bush’s] re-election would be a recession next year. The White House does not believe such a recession is likely, and neither do most private economists.”

Unfortunately for President Bush (for clarification, this is the President Bush who served as president from 1988-1992; he is the father of the more recent President Bush, who served from 2000-2008), there was a recession in 1992, and in part because of that recession, Bill Clinton defeated George Bush to become President in 1992.

Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article about the 1992 presidential election:

Given that we’re in a recession and that if we remain in one, it will be difficult for President Obama to win, it makes sense to start watching the Republican nomination process a bit more carefully.

And just in case some students might want a head start in finding out about the candidates, here’s that picture from last night’s debate, this time with the names in order from left to right:

Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Michelle Bachmann.

A question to ask once students start following the process is why we hold debates in sound bites rather than allowing candidates to explain their reasoning in more depth.

When moderator George Stephanopoulos explained the rules of last night’s debate, he noted that the candidates will “forgo opening statements and then they will give, they’ve agreed, one minute responses to questions from Diane and me, [with] 30 seconds for rebuttal.”

How does that format shape the debate, and is that format healthy for our democracy? These are the sorts of questions worth thinking about — because who becomes president is a big deal, and the process we use to choose that person says a good deal about our political system.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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One Response to Following the Presidential Race (for Middle School Students)

  1. Margaret Klaslo says:

    I am really liking this. I teach 8th grade students and as global citizens I feel that they really need to be involved and informed young people. This presidential election promises to be interesting. So many of our young people have been directly affected by the economy and by the war. I plan on making these next few months a truly cross curricular learning experience for my students .

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